Participatory Aid

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Matt Stempeck:

"Participatory aid is mutual, peer-to-peer aid assisted by information and communication technologies. The motivations behind informal, community-driven mutual aid have been around for as long as mankind, as they are natural social systems, part of every day life for human beings, evolved long before our modern formal aid organizations. Social media has made conversation more transparent, and in doing so, exposed these organic social links in myriad new ways." (



"People are using information and communication technologies (like the internet) to help each other in times of crisis (natural or man-made). This trend is the evolution of a concept known as “mutual aid”, introduced by Russian polymath Peter Kropotkin in 1902 in his argument that our natural sociable inclinations towards cooperation and mutual support are underserved by capitalism’s exclusive focus on the self-interested individual. My own reaction is to the bureaucracy’s underserving of informal and public-led solutions.

The practice of mutual aid has been greatly accelerated and extended by the internet’s global reach. I introduce the term “participatory aid” to describe the new reality where people all over the planet can participate in providing aid in various forms to their fellow humans. In many of these cases, that aid is mediated at least partially by technology, rather than exclusively by formal aid groups.

Formal aid groups like the UN and Red Cross are facing disintermediation not entirely unlike we’ve seen in the music, travel, and news industries. Members of the public are increasingly turning towards direct sources in crises rather than large, bureaucratic intermediaries. Information is increasingly likely to originate from people on the ground in those places rather than news companies, and there is a rich and growing number of ways to help, as well.


One of the more celebrated methods of recent years is the practice of crisismapping. Following a disaster, crowdsourced mapping platforms like Ushahidi are populated with geocoded data by globally distributed online volunteers like Volunteer Standby Taskforce. The teams collect, translate, verify, analyze, and plot data points to improve the situational awareness (the “what’s going on where”) of formal emergency managers and organizations.

Of course, participatory aid is not limited to producing crisis maps to benefit formal aid organizations, and I argue we shouldn’t limit our understanding of the space to this one early example. Countless professions have shifted to support the digitization of labor, so many of our jobs can (and are) conducted online (pro bono networks like Taproot Foundation and Catchafire are important inspirations to consider). Over time, technology has continued to expand the range of actions an individual can accomplish from anywhere in the world." (



"Participatory aid can consist of projects that help existing formal aid groups (like a crisis map created at the request of such an institution) or projects that seek to help the affected population directly (like the Sandy Coworking Map, which listed donations of commercial real estate by and for the people of New York). This is a spectrum, because there are many projects which seek to help the affected population as well as the professionals mediating their aid.

Likewise, there is a spectrum between microwork, which often gets called ‘crowdsourcing’, and far less discrete tasks, like designing an entirely new software project or launching an entirely new public initiative like Occupy Sandy. In my research, I noticed that even some of those in the participatory aid space a limited view of its possibilities, and consider crowdsourced microwork at the behest of existing state actors (quadrant IV) to be the ideal application of technological innovation in crisis response. This is an exciting area, but there’s equally great work being done elsewhere. We can create and execute much deeper, more complicated solutions than helping sort thousands of tweets to extract actionable information." (


More Information

The Participatory Aid Marketplace



"a team of MIT undergrads (Patrick Marx, Eann Tuann, and Yi-shiuan Tung), I co-designed and built a website to aggregate participatory aid projects. The goals of the site are:

  • to index active participatory aid projects by crisis to provide an overview of public response
  • to match skilled volunteers with projects seeking their help
  • to host the case library of previous examples of peer aid, tagged by the needs they addressed, in the hopes of inspiring future projects
  • to do all of this in as user-friendly, open, and distributable ways as possible (including early support for a couple of emerging aid data standards)."